Players to Watch, Matchups to Keep an Eye On in Super Bowl LI

It is Super Bowl week. Both conference representatives, the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, have arrived in Houston. There will be a lot to discuss all week. The headlines began a week ago: “Goodell Versus Brady”; “Can Matty Ice Cap His MVP Season with a SB Title?”; “The Belichick-Brady Drive for 5”; “Atlanta’s Quest for First Championship”.

We attempt to delve into some of those topics and much more, as we key in on some intriguing questions and matchups as the big game draws near.


Non-Quarterback MVP

This is a QB award and we know it. Of the 50 Super Bowl MVP trophies that have been handed out, 27 have gone to the quarterback position. So let’s eliminate Tom Brady and Matt Ryan from this discussion and look at some other guys who might be able to buck the trend and walk away with the hardware.

Vic Beasley — A quiet 15.5 sacks this season for the second year linebacker put him tops in the league in that category. Atlanta better come strong after Tom Brady, and you can imagine, if they do, that Beasley will be leading that charge.

Julian Edelman — The Atlanta defense can be run on. No team uses the short passing game as an extension of their running game more effectively than the Patriots. And few receivers (or running backs for that matter) in the league are as elusive, quick, or can take a hit quite like number 11 can. If Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady decide to attack that weakness of the Falcons defense, Edelman could be the beneficiary.

Others to Watch: Julio Jones — the guy is as good a receiver as there is in the league and Matt Ryan will certainly be looking to get him involved early and often; LeGarrette Blount — it would be just like the Pats to switch from throwing the ball all over the field to pounding the rock.


Surprise Breakout Performance

There are countless players who over the years have saved their best performances for the biggest stage. Some parlayed the performance into regular national recognition as a top player at their position — Malcolm Butler, for example; others did not see much come of their one-hit wonder performance in the big game — Chris Matthews and his 4 catches, 109 yards in Super Bowl XLIX two years ago for the Seahawks in a losing effort or Dexter Jackson in Tampa Bay’s victory in 2002. Who will hear his name called numerous times this Sunday by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman during the broadcast?

Taylor Gabriel is an explosive, fast receiver, and if the Patriots plan on bringing the safety up to help defend Julio Jones, Gabriel should enjoy some space downfield against the Patriots third cornerback. New England has perfected the “bend but don’t break” defense — give up the yards but hunker down and stop teams from getting into the endzone. Gabriel is just the type of player who can find space and collect yards downfield on this defense.

On the New England side, they have so many weapons. So this answer really boils down to who Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady want to use to exploit matchups on Sunday. For me, I think running back James White has been a little too quiet this postseason — like, is-he-even-on-the-team quiet. One carry, four catches for 27 yards, and a TD is the totality of White’s postseason. Brady likes throwing to him out of the backfield and will even line him up as a receiver at times. How Atlanta guards against him might be more than that defense can handle.

Others to watch: Austin Hooper (ATL tight end) — second best TE in the NFL as far as DVOA goes; Aldrick Robinson (ATL wide receiver) — speed kills; Kyle Van Noy (NE linebacker) — most productive defensive player for the Patriots in their win over Pittsburgh.


Matchup to Watch

The fun, headline-grabbing matchup is the one happening on the edge, between all-pro WR Julio Jones and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler. While that could very well be an exciting matchup, the one that could determine the game will be fought down in the trenches — as it oftentimes is: Atlanta’s pass rush versus the New England offensive line.

The Patriots o-line was their major weakness in 2015-16, and may have been the biggest contributing factor as to why they lost to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Brady was hit — a lot. Brady was made uncomfortable — a lot. Brady felt pressure up the middle, in his face — a lot. Seemingly, every time he dropped back to pass, he was hurried and rushing his throws. So New England did what New England does — they made a point to fix it by hiring former Patriots (and at the time retired) offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. For what it’s worth, Brady has been extraordinarily complimentary of his blockers up front — whether that’s true praise or whether it’s simply knowing where your proverbial bread is buttered, can be debated.

But the stats do bear it out: according to Football Outsiders, New England’s offensive line ranks 6th in pass protection. How that unit stacks up against the league’s best sack artist, Vic Beasely, could tell the story of Super Bowl LI.

Others to Watch: LeGarrette Blount versus all 11 Atlanta defenders at once (you did see the run against the Steelers, right?); and of course, the aforementioned Julio versus Butler.


Under the Most Pressure

Hard selection on the New England side. Who really on that sideline has a lot to prove? Certainly not Belichick or Brady — their legacies are firmly cemented and each will already go down as two of the very best, if not THE best, at their respective jobs. So how about the hero from Super Bowl XLIX — Malcolm Butler? The undrafted cornerback has already defied odds and expectations by making it to the NFL, winning a Super Bowl, and making, quite possibly, the biggest interception in Super Bowl history. So how, you ask, is Butler the one with the most pressure on him? Well for starters, it’s difficult finding any Patriot with an ounce of pressure on them — so you might need to stretch it a bit. Secondly, Butler has the task of shadowing the league’s best and most dangerous wide receiver in Julio Jones. And his tweet that became public from years ago about wanting to cover Jones will have a way of getting the media’s attention all week.

You could make a strong case for the entire Atlanta or New England defenses as well — both have the challenge of facing highly-potent offenses. Also, of course, Matt Ryan faces the pressure of closing out his magical, probable-MVP season with a win in Houston.


Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.




Author: Brian Goodwin

An educator for 15 years. I have a passion for sports and a passion for writing about sports. I'm very excited to run this blog and have conversations with people about relevant topics, mostly pertaining to sports but also in all aspects of life.

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